At the beginning of the 1980s, New York was experiencing a time of sexual freedom that followed on the heels of the cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s. New Yorkers frequented discotheques, bathhouses, and other venues where anonymous sexual encounters were commonplace. After the Stonewall Riots in 1969 and the birth of the rights movement, New Yorkers who had hidden the fact that they were gay began “coming out” and challenging discrimination. But sexual freedom came with a price. In the early 1980s, rare illnesses began to appear among normally healthy people, especially gay men, without a known cause. This portion of the exhibit explored the confusion and grief of this time period as doctors struggled to identify the disease and as groups like the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and the NYC Department of Health began to raise awareness of the disease and how it spread.
The Epidemic of Fear
Although scientists and medical professionals had identified AIDS, they were still in the dark about the true causes of the disease, inciting widespread fear and anger. While gay men held vigils for loved ones who died of AIDS and protested the lack of government funding and research, many other Americans protested the gay lifestyle, condemning it as immoral, or ignored the epidemic altogether. However, as more people outside of the gay community contracted AIDS and as scientists identified how the disease was transmitted, it became apparent that it could strike anyone.
The End of the Beginning
Between 1983 and 1984, scientists finally identified HIV as the retrovirus that causes AIDS. Many nonprofit organizations rallied to bring relief to those already suffering from HIV/AIDS. It was at this time that activists like Larry Kramer and William Hoffman wrote plays that highlighted the devastating effects of AIDS on the gay community. Artists like Keith Haring utilized graffiti and street art to promote AIDS awareness with now famous images like the “Silence=Death” pink triangle. These early years of AIDS research and activism shaped the way we deal with AIDS today as well as other serious diseases and epidemics. While antiretroviral therapy has improved the quality of life for people infected with HIV, HIV/AIDS is still a threat to public health.
Children with AIDS: Spirit and Memory Photographs by Claire Yaffa
This companion exhibit features twenty breathtaking black-and-white photographs by social-realist photographer Claire Yaffa. In the early years of the AIDS epidemic, many children with HIV/AIDS were abandoned, orphaned, or removed from their families because of drug use, neglect, or abuse. Although these children were placed into the foster care system, few were willing to take care of them. In response to this crisis, the Archdiocese of New York, in conjunction with the Columbia University Department of Pediatrics, created the Incarnation Children’s Center in 1988 to care for children living with AIDS. In the care of skilled medical practitioners, children who otherwise would have been left alone to die in a hospital received loving end-of-life care, as evidenced by Yaffa’s photographs.
Mayor Edward Irving “Ed” Koch
Ed Koch, born December 12, 1924, was best known for his service as mayor of New York City for three consecutive terms (1978–1989), but also had careers as a lawyer, political commentator, and movie critic. A lifelong New Yorker, Koch began his extensive political career serving in the City Council from 1967 to 1969, then in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1969 to 1977. In November 1977, he was elected mayor of New York City, and assumed office the following year. His “law and order” platform won over New Yorkers still frightened by the 1977 blackout and rioting. Once in office, Koch cut spending, taxes, and 7,000 people from the city payroll – hard decisions that helped create New York City’s economic boom of the 1980s. He was also known for his zealous support of and love for New York City. Koch was often seen riding public transportation and standing on street corners asking citizens, “How’m I doing?” He won re-election for his second term in 1981 with 75 percent of the vote and with 78 percent of the vote for his third term in 1985.
However, Koch’s response to the AIDS epidemic garnered criticism. When AIDS-focused community groups tried to meet with Mayor Koch, he delayed responding to them. His office organized a meeting two years after Gay Men’s Health Crisis’s initial request. Although Koch did eventually broaden eligibility for receiving AIDS services, establish eight new clinics, and hire more AIDS counselors, his effort was seen as minimal. Some considered his inactivity a political move to appease his conservative following. Other critics, including Koch’s neighbor Larry Kramer, believed Koch was a closeted homosexual and said his slow response was a direct consequence of discomfort with his own sexual orientation. Koch, who never married, denied being a homosexual and declared in an interview after retirement that he was heterosexual.